The annual last day of school was one of the most anticipated days of the year for Baby Boomers. It would be 1972 before Alice Cooper coalesced what boomers were thinking in anticipation of summer vacation, in his song, School’s Out. Before that time, boomers everywhere repeated the refrain that was incorporated into Cooper’s song:
No more pencils
No more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks
Once the mad dash out the school doors was history, boomers couldn’t wait for a summer of outdoor play. And that is exactly what boomers did: spend as much time as possible in the Great Outdoors. A typical summer vacation day for Mister Boomer and his neighborhood was to get up the same time as when school was in session, have a bowl of cereal, and head out the door. He wouldn’t return until dinner time, though on occasion stopped by his house for a cool drink from the hose or a quick sandwich. Parents knew their kids were with a group of other kids, and didn’t know or need to know where they were at any given time. Truth be told, Mister Boomer, his brother and a host of neighborhood kids might very well be a close as a block or two away, or as far as many miles via bicycle.
For Mister Boomer, outdoor play fell into a few categories. One of the most popular among his neighborhood was the all-day baseball game. Innings easily reached double-digits as playing was more important than a game winner or loser. Another was to play in nearby woods and fields. The boys could imagine all sorts of army scenarios, hunt for snakes and mudbugs, pick wild berries and create make-shift weaponry from fallen branches. At one point the neighborhood was deeply involved in creating tree forts. More like platforms than actual buildings, the boys scrounged chucks of wood in alleys and fields, then borrowed hammers and nails from their fathers’ workbenches. Each fort in the forest was built and occupied by four to six boys, and ranged from 10 to 20 ft. off the ground.
Meanwhile, boomer girls in the neighborhood sometimes hung out with the boys, but more often they chose to play in the yards of their neighborhood friends or at the elementary school where the city had various day camp activities available. Mister B would ride Sister Boomer over to the school on his bike, where she could learn how to weave strips of vinyl into useless keychains, among other things, while Mister B might play a game of table hockey.
After dinner, most kids headed back outside. Mister Boomer’s neighborhood often had games of hide and seek. Both boys and girls from seven to early teens would participate. The games would encompass the entire block and have more than fifty players. Once the game was finished, kids could sit on porches or lie in the grass and stare at the constellations. No one had air conditioning in his neighborhood, so the night air felt good after being in the hot sun all day.
By comparison, today’s kids don’t like to spend much time outdoors. Everyone knows kids don’t have the freedom to roam the way boomer kids did, but the results of these changing times have short and long-term ramifications on the health of children. The birth rate has declined by 41 percent since 1960, so neighborhoods have fewer children who can get together as a group. Parental worries about heavy street traffic, pedophiles and missing children add to the mix. A survey by the Center for Disease Control and the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that on a typical day a child is six times more likely to play a video game than to ride a bike. Bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995.
Many surveys are trying to get to the bottom of this trend, and have discovered some interesting reasons for the indoor preference. One line of thought blames air conditioning. In boomer days few people had home air conditioning. In Mister Boomer’s case, only some stores and the movie theater had it. Kids now have never lived without it, and have grown accustomed to indoor air rather than outside heat.
Others point to the parents. A survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) found that participation in every organized sport — including soccer, basketball, football, track & field, baseball and softball — has dropped significantly in the past five years. Softball alone has seen a drop of 30 percent in participation. When asked, parents offered several reasons why they preferred their children not to participate in these organized outdoor activities: risk of injury; behavior of coaches; commitment of time; cost; and the emphasis on having fun over winning. All valid reasons, but other outdoor play does not seem to be substituted.
Some studies point to the release of Nintendo 64 in 1996 as the beginning of this downward trend away from outdoor play. Video games were around since the early 1970s, but the release of Nintendo 64 greatly enhanced the look and feel of the games, and expanded the amount of games available. The Kaiser study found, on average, today’s kids ages eight to 10 spend six hours a day watching TV, playing video games and using computers.
So, were we boomers outside more simply because we had no other choices? Or are today’s kids inside because of overprotective parents and an addiction to all things electronic? Scientists and physicians predict this trend toward less outdoor play will result in a less healthy generation, which is already reflected in the obesity rate among children. Could it be the answer to much of our country’s health concerns — especially among children — is more outdoor play?
What memories of summer outdoor fun do you have, boomers?